THE BEST OF ENEMIES (2019)

April 4, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s easy to complain (and many do) about how Hollywood usually explores racism. Sometimes the stories seem a bit over-simplistic, as with THE HELP, GREEN BOOK, and HIDDEN FIGURES; however, rather than criticize, perhaps we should be thankful for any effort to prod. Often getting the conversation started is the best first step. That’s really the message from Robin Bissell’s directorial debut of a script he adapted from Osha Gray Davidson’s 1996 book “The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South”. Mr. Bissell has previously been Executive Producer on THE HUNGER GAMES and SEABISCUIT, and Mr. Davidson’s book was previously adapted for a stage production.

Based on a true story that took place in 1971 Durham, North Carolina, the film portrays the remarkable events that led to the integration of public schools and a stranger-than-fiction friendship. Taraji P Henson stars as Ann Atwater, an African-American activist and community organizer, while Oscar winner Sam Rockwell co-stars as Claiborne “CP” Ellis, the Exalted Cyclops (basically the Chapter President) of the Ku Klux Klan. It seems the previous stranger-than-fiction description is aptly applied here when an aggressive black woman known as “Roughhouse Annie” can effectively sway the long ingrained beliefs of a KKK leader, and forge a friendship that would last 3 decades.

A school fire that partially gutted the elementary school attended by the black children in the community was the proverbial spark that kicked off the chain of events. When the white folks refused to share their school, the black children were forced to hold classes in the areas least affected by the fire … while demolition and renovation was being carried out. This led to the NAACP getting involved, which resulted in a judge ordering a “Charrette” – a blend of a committee and a civic debate – to determine how the community would move forward. Bill Riddick (Babou Ceesay, FREE FIRE, 2016) was charged with organizing the Charrette, and he named Ms. Alexander and Mr. Ellis as co-chairs. Keep in mind this was 17 years after Brown vs. Board of Education ruled in favor of school desegregation, but many pockets of the south were slow to come around.

The story structure offers synchronicity between the lives of Alexander and Ellis, as they each struggle with poverty and family challenges. It’s just one of the ways of trying to show they were more alike than different, and much more of the time is devoted to how the transition slowly occurs for Ellis. Of course, even though each side dislikes the other, it’s Ellis whose eyes must be opened as he clings to the only way of life he’s known. Because of this, Mr. Rockwell has the meatier role, but it’s Ms. Henson (and her fat suit) who draws the most laughs and nods of approval from the audience.

As you would expect, it’s a strutting Mr. Rockwell and boisterous Ms. Henson that dominate the film, however, some tremendous actors fill the supporting roles: Wes Bentley (as a Confederate soldier hat-wearing Klansman), Anne Heche (as Ellis’ wife), Nick Searcy, Bruce McGill, John Gallagher Jr, and Caitlin Mehner.

The film is a most entertaining (though a bit lightweight) look at an historic chain of events, and it’s right up there with a black cop infiltrating the Klan in Spike Lee’s 2018 film BLACKkKLANSMAN believe-it-or-not points. In 1980, Studs Terkel conducted an interview with Mr. Ellis, and it’s worth a read to gain a bit more insight into a man that truly changed his evil ways. The ending of this film leans heavily on the “feel-good” and “can’t we all just get along” approach, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing. The end credit sequence features some tremendous clips of the real Ms. Alexander (who died in 2016) and Mr. Ellis (who died in 2005), making it a bit easier to understand how the two opposites connected for the greater good.

watch the trailer:

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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – FALLOUT

July 25, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Welcome back Ethan Hunt, and the other members of IMF. This is the 6th film in the franchise born (not Bourne) from the classic TV series (1966-73) created by Bruce Geller (credited in each film). Writer/director Christopher McQuarrie returns for this companion piece to his 2015 MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE ROGUE NATION, as of course does mega-star Tom Cruise as the aforementioned Ethan Hunt.

Hunt’s team of Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames) returns, as does really really bad guy Solomon Lane (a glowering Sean Hayes), and MI6 agent Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson). New to the scene is Agent August Walker (Henry Cavill, MAN OF STEEL), a hulking hunk of a man who doesn’t share Ethan’s belief in brainy strategy. Speaking of strategy, I was a bit tricky in inviting a friend to the screening who is in the midst of a years long boycott of Alec Baldwin movies. Although I felt a fleeting twinge of guilt, I believe the payoff was such that it lessened the impact of deception. Also appearing are Angela Bassett as a CIA toughie, Michelle Monaghan, Wes Bentley, and Vanessa Kirby (“The Crown”) as White Widow.

Most fans of this franchise have likely accepted that the stories are overly intricate – this one is unnecessarily jumbled – and they just enjoy the clamorous ride to an ending that typically has something to do with a bomb and saving the world. It’s the action and stunts that drive ticket sales, and this one has the most extreme and over-the-top action sequences we’ve seen yet. Even though there is a familiarity to some, the stunts are still quite impressive; and yes, Mr. Cruise, now in his mid-50’s, still performs his own stunts. This includes the leap between buildings where he actually suffered a broken ankle, shutting down production for a few months. The jump where he was injured is included in the film. And fear not, the Cruise Sprint is in full force on numerous occasions. Sadly, there is also a quick shot of a Ving Rhames jog – nothing but painful to watch.

The film opens with a wedding day nightmare, but quickly moves to what the fans want – globetrotting, chase scenes, slick advanced technology and wacky stunts. The streets, bridges and landmarks of Paris are on full and spectacular display, while the chase scenes occur on foot, on motorcycle, in cars, and in helicopters. Crazy stunts include HALO jumping, rock climbing and dangling from an elevator shaft. There is a relentless brawl scene in a men’s room where Hunt gets face planted into a porcelain sink and thrown through a wall … and thanks to the magic of Hollywood, five minutes later, he has nary a scratch and looks as debonair as James Bond ever has. However, it’s the final helicopter sequence through the mountains and cliffs of Kashmir that provide the signature moments of the film. Even with the nod to JURASSIC PARK, it’s a breathtaking scene.

Running nearly 2 ½ hours, this is the longest of the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE films, and Ethan Hunt remains, along with Maverick in TOP GUN (sequel filming now), the best fit for Tom Cruise the actor and celebrity. Unfortunately the same can’t be said for Henry Cavill. He’s blessed with extraordinary genes – just not the thespian types. Filled with double and triple and quad crossings, whether you can follow the story or not, only the most stoic would claim you will find this anything less than an adrenaline rush … should you decide to accept. Plus, it still features one of the best theme songs ever – especially powerful with today’s phenomenal theatre sound systems. Thanks Lalo Schifrin.

watch the trailer:


KNIGHT OF CUPS (2016)

March 19, 2016

knight of cups Greetings again from the darkness. Some are calling this the third segment of a Terrence Malick trilogy – in conjunction with The Tree of Life (2011) and To The Wonder (2012). While the first of these three movies is considered an artful thought-inducing commentary on parenting and growing up, the third might just prove director Malick is the ultimate prankster … or maybe this is his grand social experiment to see just how far he can push his viewers.

Let’s start with the positive elements, as that won’t take long. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is an eight time Oscar nominee and three time winner (The Revenant, Birdman, Gravity), and has been the Director of Photography on these three Malick movies. He is a master with the camera, and truly creates art whether he is shooting nature, an isolated figure, or even the convoluted party scene in this latest. All three films are beautiful to look at … which doesn’t necessarily translate to being a pleasure to watch. OK, that’s the end of the good stuff.

The movie title, as well as the chapter titles flashed during the film, originates from Tarot cards. Unfortunately, the in-film titles seem to have little (or no) connection to the scenes that follow, nor those that precede. My guess is that Malick was playing truth or dare, and his opponent dared him to include Tarot cards in his next film … a worthy challenge for any director.

If you are looking for a story or anything approaching coherency or character development, Mr. Malick would have you believe that the trite tradition of beginning/middle/end is dead, and its replacement is a mosaic of barely related fragments with no need for such frivolity as conversation. Sure, the characters move their lips, but mostly what’s heard is whispered narration and mood music.

If somehow you aren’t yet excited to rush out to the theatre, perhaps you may be enticed by the random stream of empty or nearly empty buildings, odd angles of Los Angeles architecture, Christian Bale roaming the rocky desert, Las Vegas (just because), lots of fancy swimming pools, and family members apparently arguing (without us hearing most of their words, of course).

Here is what we know. Christian Bale plays a screenwriter apparently experiencing some type of writer’s block. While blocked, he reflects on his life and the six women with whom he had relationships (Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Frieda Pinto, Teresa Palmer, Imogen Poots, Isabel Lucas). We know nothing of his character’s writing ability, but it’s obvious he has been successful in attracting beautiful women to his bed – and then, like most guys, screwing things up beyond repair. Bale’s character also has an angry (and perhaps ill) brother (Wes Bentley) and an angry (and perhaps ill) father (Brian Dennehy). At times, they are all angry together and angry at each other, and it’s apparently over the suicide of the youngest brother/son … though we are never clear on who blames who, or if they all blame each other and themselves.

To be sure, Terrence Malick is the only director making movies like this. His films attract the best actors working … even though no script exists. He may be the painter who paints like no other painter, and thereby appeals to the smallest possible audience. What I do know is that I counted 32 fellow movie goers walk out of the theatre during the movie, not to return. It’s possible the popcorn was somehow tainted, but more likely they value their time on Earth.

It’s certainly possible that my mental capacity falls substantially short of what’s required to comprehend the metaphysical Malick message. Or perhaps the project is as pretentious as it seems. Or perhaps I’m just not in on the joke. There is one line from the film that does make a point, “To suffer binds you to something higher than yourself”. Perhaps Malick is providing a service to those of us who suffer through this movie … if only we knew to what we were being bound.

Oh, and what’s with the helicopters?

watch the trailer … try muting the sound and closing your eyes for the full experience.

 


WELCOME TO ME (2015)

May 8, 2015

welcome to me Greetings again from the darkness. There is no shortage of films that feature some type of mental illness or disorder. Folks that don’t “fit in” make for characters that create unusual situations and generate cinema’s biggest friend – conflict.  Cast a talented performer who thrives in “off-center” roles, and the potential exists for some actual insight.

Kristen Wiig is obviously attracted to unusual characters, as well as stories that wobble between comedy and drama. Here she plays Alice Klieg, a woman diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. Alice memorizes Oprah shows, spends hours watching infomercials, and attends state-mandated therapy with her psychologist (Tim Robbins). She also has many inappropriate social tendencies and is a consistent player in the California Lottery – a ritual that pays off nicely when she wins $86 million.

Once she collects her winnings, Alice decides to drop her meds cold and move herself into the spotlight. She relocates from her dank apartment into a suite at a local Indian Reservation Casino, and then buys airtime from a local infomercial studio run by brothers (Wes Bentley, James Marsden) in order to star in her own show, “Welcome to Me”.  With the help of a swan sled as a prop, Alice moves forward with a two hour TV block that is centered on her own thoughts and re-enactments of the most traumatic moments of her life. It’s about her personal pain, but also painful for the show’s producer played by Joan Cusack.

It’s difficult to tell what screenwriter Eliot Laurence and director Shira Piven (brother to actor Jeremy, and wife to director Adam McKay) are trying to accomplish here. Poking fun at mental illness is a delicate undertaking, but perhaps they meant this as more commentary on a society that is so quick to latch onto the troubles of others … whether as news or comedy. It could also be a statement on the narcissism that runs rampant these days, as Facebook is filled with selfies and photos of meals.

It could be argued that Alice’s TV show could be more accurately titled “TMI”, but it’s unfortunate there just doesn’t seem to be more substance here. Sure, there are some highly awkward and uncomfortable moments – some quite funny, but the movie really plays more like an extended comedy sketch, and whatever works seems due to the stellar cast: Wiig, Marsden, Bentley, Cusack, Robbins, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Thomas Mann, and the underutilized Linda Cardellini. Just like “Perfect Polly” in the opening infomercial, what’s real and what’s real enough are in the eyes of the beholder, and perhaps this one could have used one more prepared statement.

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE HUNGER GAMES (2012)

April 3, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Having not read the Young Adult novels of Suzanne Collins, my comments will be limited to the movie only and not a comparison to the books. The screenplay was a joint affair courtesy Ms. Collins, Billy Ray, and director Gary Ross (Seabiscuit). Whether or not you read the books, you surely know that this has been an anticipated film version in the vein of Twilight and Harry Potter. My analysis is that it falls short of Harry and is superior to the vamps.

What this film definitely is … proof that Jennifer Lawrence is for real. She burst onto the scene in her Oscar nominated turn in Winter’s Bone and once again, her squirrel recipes come in handy. Lawrence plays Katniss Everdeen, a tough as nails and very resourceful resident of the dirt poor District 12. She provides for her little sis and their emotionally vacant mother, and does so by honing her bow and arrow skills hunting in the vast woodlands.

 Without going into too much detail, the dystopian world of Panem is divided into 12 districts and a Capitol. As a combination entertainment and price for previous rebellion, an annual lottery is held to select a boy and girl from each district … “tributes” to their community. Those drawing the proverbial short straw are entered into a brutal fight to the death, where 23 are to be killed and one left standing. In the 74th annual Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers to take the place of her little sister. So she and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson, The Kids are All Right) are whisked away to the Capitol to meet their mentor, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), a one time winner who now celebrates daily by downing as much booze as possible.

 In stark contrast to the hopeless community from which they arrive, the Capitol is a gleaming, bright-colored land of enchantment filled with wildly costumed residents seemingly bored by the atrocity of the annual event. Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley, American Beauty) is the man in charge of staging and manipulating the event for the highest possible ratings and entertainment value. He carries out his duties while sporting a very unique satanic beard, unlike you have seen before.

After prepping from a futuristic Tom Ford named Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), the tributes appear in front of a futuristic Ryan Seacrest played by the flamboyant Stanley Tucci. His Caesar Flickerman is charged with interviewing so as to help the audience make a connection. Nothing like humanizing the prey.

 It takes a full hour, but the actual Hunger Games finally begin. Quickly the faceless characters disappear and the game of brutality and brains begins. Lawrence is truly a standout here since she has tremendous ability as an actress, and sells her athletic ability quite well. I can’t say I was as taken by Mr. Hutcherson, who spends most of the film looking like a wounded puppy.

While the PG-13 rating keeps it from becoming a gore fest, I found the action sequences to be quite entertaining. More interesting to me was how the story and characters are posed so that a viewer might interpret meaning in just about any manner one cares to twist. There are political views and human nature traits and commentary on the Reality TV world that are primed for claiming … regardless of one’s opinion. To me, that’s a weakness. I would rather the story take a stand and make a statement. But then I remind myself that this is the first in a trilogy of Young Adult stories. It’s not designed for deep thought. The movie succeeds in reaching the goal of producing a strong young female character in a world run amok.

The movie and story seems a mash-up of The Running Man (1987) and Japan’s Battle Royale (2000), but do deliver some other interesting characters, notably Donald Sutherland as the viscious President, Elizabeth Banks as the colorful PR expert Effie Trinket.  T Bone Burnett teams with James Newton Howard for the music, and the Tracker Jackers will definitely cross your mind the next time you have a wasp nest to deal with.  The missed opportunities with political commentary and a more in-depth love story do not harm the entertainment value here, and the box office success guarantees we will see “Catching Fire” and “Mockingjay” to finish out the trilogy.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you read the books (haha … like you haven’t already seen the movie at least twice) OR you want to follow the career of Jennifer Lawrence (super star in the making)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting an incredibly intense, socio-political commentary OR a satanic looking beard could cause nightmares

watch the trailer: